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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Raazi, Review: Lying and spying, willing and killing

Raazi, Review: Lying and spying, willing and killing

As spy thrillers go, Raazi is, at best, average fare. During the first half, it runs the risk of becoming a pedestrian assemblage of trope followed by trope followed by trope. Then, just in time, the writers and the director took booster shots and shaped out the human dilemma, counterpoising it with murder and mayhem. In scale and mounting, Raazi can pass off as a modest Spielberg vehicle, but the total experience remains just about watchable, with a fair measure of contribution from a certain Alia Bhatt.

Harinder S. Sikka’s 2008 novel, Calling Sehmat, is the basis of the plot. Calling Sehmat is a story of a Kashmiri woman who married a Pakistani Army Officer so as to provide the Indian intelligence with invaluable information, during the Indo-Pak War of 1971. Harinder S. Sikka was commissioned in the Indian Navy soon after graduating from Delhi University, in 1979. He took premature retirement in 1993.  He went to Kargil during the Indo-Pak war, to write his first hand experiences. The book, Calling Sehmat was conceived at the battle theatre and took eight long years to complete. It is not a true story, we got that. Or did we? Sikka says it is a fictionalised account of a true story, first narrated to him by the son of the woman whom he later called Sehmat. And he actually met her. So let’s call it truly imagined.

Kashmir-resident Hidayat Khan is a double agent for Pakistan and India, with his loyalties on the Indian side. When he discovers that he had a tumour in his lung, he confides the news in his contact, Pakistani Brigadier Syed, who is deeply moved. A second generation spy, he cannot let his contribution end with his death, and recruits his college-going daughter Sehmat into the profession. Sehmat, who is more interested in saving little squirrels than avoiding oncoming cars, has the unique gift of photographic memory, which would be priceless in the fine art of spying. As a sacrifice for their dear India, Sehmat agrees.

She is initiated into the tricks of the trade by Khalid Mir and married to Iqbal Syed, the son of Brigadier Syed. Step-by-step she sets up microphones and transmitters and runs a surveillance network single-handedly. To provide back-up, there is a large network of Indian sympathisers and even regular operatives. Whenever she needs to communicate securely, she goes down to these locations. And in case of dire need, she is given the phone contact of the Indian Embassy. Of course, when worse comes to worst, Sehmat has to use the murder weapon.

Coming from the pen of a naval officer, one can assume that the incidents depicted in the film follow proper protocol. Bhavani Iyer and Meghna Gulzar’s screenplay is unable to enhance the dialogue, perhaps treading too cautiously. Iyer, a former journalist has some impressive credits, like Black, Guzaarish and Lootera and is also a novelist. Meghna Gulzar is the daughter of lyricist film-maker Gulzar, and has made films like Filhaal and Talvar. She has co-written and directed Raazi, also taking credit for dialogue. Her capacities on the last department are not beyond scrutiny. Scenes where Sehmat is taunted and tripped by Mir are repetitive, and their exchanges pretentious.

A lot of footage is devoted to the prelude, including the Hidayat-Teji-Sehmat family tear-jerking, songs and a full-scale wedding. Once Sehmat is planted and gets into her act, almost everything happens like clockwork. On a couple of occasions, when we feel she might face getting exposed, she gets saved by the proverbial bell. Whether it is true or not, the presence

of so many ‘spies’ in a city, operating freely, and getting found out only when things come to a head stretches the imagination. A title like Raazi is Gulzarian to the hilt and hints at the willingness with which spies take on their jobs. A very simplistic breaking down of the complex equation that espionage is. Maybe they were toying with calling it Ghazi, the Pakistani submarine that is at the center of the story, but somebody made a film called The Ghazi Attack last year. So, if we cannot have Ghazi, let’s settle for something that rhymes.

As a rule, Muslim women do not attend burials, but Meghna goes with the exception. Rajnigandha is a well-known flower, the name having Hindi origins. In Raazi, they refer to it repeatedly as Rajnigandha in Pakistan, where Hindi is not spoken. There is a translation that called it Gul-e-Shabbo, which can’t be far from the best. Sehmat literally translates as agreeable, but I could not find an Urdu/Pakistani use of the word, raazi being very close. Hidayat’s wife is called Teji, another of those names that do not resonate on Pakistan/Urdu. In India, there many Sikh women named Teji, an abbreviation of Tejinder.

Both, the beginning and the end, comprise a military event, addressed by Kanwaljit Singh and attended by, among hundreds of others, Sanjay Suri, on a naval vessel, serve no real purpose at all. They do reveal that a fourth generation of Indian patriots is now ready to take guard, albeit as a regular soldier, not a spy. Surely there was a better way of making that point than mere organic rounding off. A colossal waste of the two artistes in ‘special appearances’; Suri does not even have a word to utter.

Meghna Gulzar straddles male machismo of war and heartless murders and the sinking deep into this morass of a sensitive girl barely into her 20s, her escaping by the skin of her teeth and then her blessing her fatherless son to follow the hereditary path. Meghna succeeds more in the delicate touches, like Iqbal’s actions as an ideal husband to a woman who, unknown to him, is wreaking havoc on his family and his country; her reciprocation, symbolised by his supplanting to his favourite jazz by her choice of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, leading into love-making and conception. Living in a rich military, joint family has also been effectively depicted.

Six years after her Student of the Year debut, Alia Bhatt (Highway, Udta Punjab, Badrinath ki Dulhaniya) has grown by leaps and bounds. Her mini pouts, the nervous shutting of eyes, the awkward gait are all there. Yet, she’s worked damn hard to merge into a truly many-faceted character. And remember, she is in the company of so many members of a talented supporting cast. Gulzar, too, must get credit where it is due. So, not quite the Spy of the Century (the film is set in the Indo-Pak war of 1971, but there is a certain Mata Hari who lays claim to the best of the 20th century), Alia has pushed her boundaries and will get a nod of at least the soft-core among them.

What a natural Vicky Kaushal (Bombay Velvet, Masaan, Raman Raghav) is, as Iqbal. Though part of a military family, he lets the passionate and humane side of his emerge as easily as if he was picking a gun. Soni Razdan, Alia’s real-life mother, is herself. We have seen very little of her, and she gas aged. Rajit Kapoor as Hidayat is competent in a short, not too well-defined role. Jaideep Ahlawat looks and speaks exactly the way you might expect someone in his position to. Shishir Sharma as Brigadier Syed reminds us that he is under-rated. Ashwath Bhatt as Iqbal’s brother has a meaty role that he does justice to. Amruta Khanvilkar plays his wife, with grace and dignity. Arif Zakaria is strangely cast as Abdul, the old faithful servant of the Syed household.

Cinematography Jay I. Patel, Editing by Nitin Baid, Production design by Subrato Chakraborty and Amit Ray, Art Direction by Vibhas Joshi (creative director) and Pallavi Pethkar, Costume Design by Maxima Basu and Bhagyashree Dattatreya Rajurkar and Make-up by Shrikant Desai have all played their part on providing looks, roads, houses, shops, cars, props, lighting and other values to make the viewing experience convincing.

Militant patriotism is the flavor of the decade. A film about an Indian patriot, who eliminated a few tip brass of the other side and even contributed to averting a submarine attack can scarcely do any harm.

Rating: ***



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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